News & Politics

The DC Government Is Having a Hard Time With Garbage Cans

A mundane plan to replace residents' trash and recycling bins with larger models continues to go terribly awry.

Public nuisance or valued keepsake? It's not always clear. Photo by Flickr user Torsten Kathke.

The District of Columbia has a trash problem. That could be a political metaphor, but this week, it’s an entirely literal statement. A city government plan to replace residents’ garbage and recycling bins with larger models has gone from a workaday act of municipal upkeep into a series of embarrassments for Mayor Vince Gray’s lame-duck administration.

Gray originally aimed to swap everyone’s trash cans by April 1, a goal critics saw as a lofty campaign promise ahead of the April 1 Democratic primary. District officials also figured that many residents would want to keep their old cans, but more people than anticipated wanted new ones. Starting in March, the Department of Public Works sent out bright yellow stickers to mark the older, smaller trash cans they wished to discard. They read “Take Me.”

But Gray’s sanitation workers apparently didn’t heed the stickers in time, and come April, many old bins remained uncollected. Neighborhoods wound up with cans piled up in alleyways and street corners, sometimes attracting vermin. The problem got so bad on some blocks that the hyperactive neighborhood blog Popville took up the cause, publicizing of a block of Shaw where abandoned bins filled the sidewalk on both sides of Fourth Street, Northwest. It was only made worse when the stickers started to degrade, becoming unreadable.

DPW finally stepped up its game last Saturday when it started a “blitz,” to finish the removal job, but even that’s gone haywire. Although many DC residents are eager to get rid of the old cans, some want to hold on to the smaller trash bins for various purposes, like Petworth resident Wayan Vota.

Vota actually got his new 32-gallon trash barrel and 48-gallon recycling “SuperCan” early on, but held on to two older cans for excess trash. But the blitz caught him off-guard. When Vota checked his back alley on Saturday, the old cans were gone.

“I wanted to keep them there,” Vota says. “We used them in the neighborhood for multiple things.”

Vota’s neighbors bailed him out with a few replacements, but he worries the blitz—which ends this Saturday—will hit him again. “If these go, then I’m going to be royally pissed,” he says.

Linda Grant, a DPW spokeswoman, says by email that the agency needs residents to “clearly identify” the old cans they wish to discard by using the stickers or turning them upside down and leaving them in an alley or on a curb. But Vota, who did not put the stickers on his cans, suggests DPW workers aren’t consistently checking for the markers. So far, Grant says, DPW has removed about 4,500 old cans since Saturday.

“They should have figured out a way of giving people more time to prepare,” says Joseph Martin, a Petworth resident who served as a community affairs staffer under former Mayor Adrian Fenty.

The issue bled into the District’s criminal justice system last month when the Metropolitan Police Department arrested 30-year-old artist Mina Karini and her friend, Timothy Melham, after they allegedly rolled away trash bins marked with the “Take Me” stickers.

Karini told the Washington Post she wanted to “re-purpose” the old cans as planters. Tomorrow, while sanitation workers reave the city for old-model trash cans, she and Melham will appear in DC Superior Court to be arraigned on second-degree theft charges.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.